The Worst Gamestorming Ever

Today I led the worst post-up I have ever experienced. It was wonderful.

An Atlas post-up

For context, I’ve long been a proponent of Gamestorming, a set of activities that encourage creative brainstorming compiled by Dave Gray. One of my favorites is a post-up, which uses sticky notes to promote group agreement on complex subjects. I’ve adapted the post-up from its original form, with great success – I change it a little with each team of executives or stakeholders, but it has a few consistent elements:

  • I always begin by asking the group to write their ideas (generally “nouns”) of what makes up the bigger project we are beginning. I ask them to write rather than discuss so that quiet voices will be heard as well as strong voices.
  • I post all of the ideas on a wall, all in one color, so that they stop being individual people’s ideas.
  • As a group, we decide which nouns are similar, and group them together in categories, in order to begin identifying a structure – and in this case, to help the students break out the website project into sections they would each individually work on.

Today I led a post-up with the students of Atlas Workshops, who are learning about UX and the design process while traveling through Scandinavia, and using the process to develop a website filled with information on the cities we are traveling through. The theme of all these cities is that they are “smart,” which Fast Co. defines as cities ranking highly in having smart economies, smart mobility, smart people, smart living, smart governance, and smart environment. Since the students had all read about these six elements of smart cities, it made sense to begin our post-up by setting a space for each category on the wall.

That was my mistake.

The problem with categories


After the students had written their ideas on sticky notes, I read all of the stickies aloud, and then asked them (as I ask every group I work with) where the first item belonged. However, where most groups are simply trying to match similar nouns, the students were trying to match nouns to their appropriate categories. They debated the merits of one category over another, hemmed and hawed, and even after I suggested getting rid of the categories altogether they remained distracted. Most post-ups end with the team in agreement on the categories they have created, and then naming them as a last step in the process. This post-up ended with the students dissatisfied with the placement of certain sticky notes, and wondering if they truly understood what made up a smart city.

To say the exercise was a failure would be unjust, and inaccurate. Gamestorming exercises are by their nature open-ended, and this one resulted in a fascinating discussion on what makes up a smart city, and how their knowledge might continue to grow throughout the trip. Far from being frustrated, one of the students later mentioned the post-up as a highlight of the day.

I feel incredibly grateful that this is the worst post-up I’ve experienced, as it was still successful in many ways. Best of all, I learned why the exercise works best without categories. The categories must arise organically, in order to accurately reflect the groups’ understanding of the project. By determining categories in advance, we rob the team of the opportunity to create a vocabulary that better communicates the project they are building. When we create categories in advance, we are literally putting words in their mouths.

It was an insightful day for both the students and the team leaders (Adam and myself). Though I intend to continue letting my version of a post-up evolve in the future, I learned a valuable lesson about its structure today – and I’m quite grateful to the students for helping me in my education.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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